When I found Feldenkrais nearly three years ago and stopped doing yoga, I thought I’d released yoga gracefully with a deep bow and a final namaste, as a good yogi would. Apparently not. A few weeks ago a friend showed me one of the yoga studios where she teaches. The beatific faces of the two men behind the registration desk and the artfully arrayed anteroom made my stomach clench. The other day, someone I hadn’t seen in a while expressed surprise that I hadn’t been to a nearby yoga studio.
“I don’t do yoga anymore,” I said. My viscera churned, as if someone had suggested I attend a pig roast. “I have no interest in setting foot in a yoga studio.” That those words escaped my lips surprised me.
I haven’t knowingly consumed pork since I was around six years old, when my parents adopted some, but not all, Jewish dietary laws. Until then, we ate most things, including pork sausage with maple syrup (delicious!). But that changed after my older brother brought a ham sandwich to his conservative Hebrew school. The shaming he received from another kid motivated him to convince our parents to become, while not completely kosher, less obviously non-kosher. We still ate cheeseburgers, which violated the prohibition against mixing milk with meat, but shunned pork, shellfish and other treyf creatures like rabbit, which I recall eating as a four year old. Unlike families who kept kosher at home with two ovens and two sets of dishes (one for dairy, one for meat), but ate pork and lobster in restaurants, our a la carte observance remained consistent inside and out of the house. I took pride in our consistency, that we lived by one set of (imperfect) rules.
Once I began Hebrew School, my teachers fed us horrifying yet supposedly inspirational stories about Jews, children included, who’d martyred themselves rather than succumb to a tyrant’s demand to eat pork. To die as a Jew with God’s name on one’s lips was preferable to allowing pig to pass those same lips. Being an impressionable child, and wanting to be a good Jew, I swallowed the lesson that a defiled life was not worth living. I developed a disgust for pork and a simultaneous lust for shrimp and lobster, whose colors and unusual shapes intrigued me. If I have a split personality, perhaps it arose around food prohibitions.
As an adult, I’ve gradually restored shrimp, mussels, clams, crab, octopus, squid and eel to my diet without triggering guilt or shame. I don’t gorge on them, just include them for variety. I’ve tried escargots, lobster and oysters and learned that they don’t stimulate culinary orgasms, despite what I’d heard. For several years I gave up all meat, except fish, which meant I avoided the pork conundrum. My return to eating meat for health reasons didn’t disgust me. Still, at the butcher counter I habitually ask if lamb or chicken sausages have a pork casing. If they do, I won’t buy them. If a dish or packaged snack contains even small amounts of bacon, I won’t eat it. That I reflexively reject these foods means the taboo around pork still exerts tremendous power, even though I happily ate it as a child, before Judaism entered the scene. Since I now practice awareness, rather than religion, I find my reaction fascinating albeit inconsistent, which bugs my inner child. Why shrimp but not ham? I have what might be an old answer: the father of a long ago boyfriend once regaled me with tales of his youth on a Hungarian farm. He praised the intelligence of pigs, and said that unlike other animals he tended, they could sense when they were about to be led to slaughter and they screamed like you wouldn’t believe. I felt relieved that Jewish custom gave me a reason not to eat such smart creatures, and perhaps he shared that anecdote as a way of making me comfortable.
Still, my reflexive rejection of things porcine predates that conversation. Would dining on (organically and sustainably raised) pork be the ultimate repudiation of my Jewish identity, the final breach of a Chinese wall, currently as thin as a sausage casing, that exists between me and the goyim? Intellectually, I know that’s not true. My father, raised in a religious community, repudiated traditional dietary laws when he emigrated to the United States, and that didn’t change his Jewishness. He ate what he wanted until his oldest child put a stop to it. Nothing is stopping me from eating pork except the sheer force of habit and the possibility of a reaction from more observant family, assuming I told them. At this point, I doubt anyone would care, nor should I. There are plenty of Jews who’ve unabashedly ditched the dietary laws.
An oft repeated tale in the Feldenkrais world is of how Moshe Feldenkrais, raised in a strictly observant Hasidic Jewish family and community, ate pork once he set out on foot from home at the age of 14. A version of the story told by Russell Delman, one of Felenkrais’ earliest American students, goes something like this: Feldenkrais is walking across Europe with a band of other boys and came across a group of people cooking a pig over a fire. It’s the only food around. “Why,” he said to himself, “should I forbid myself this food simply because my parents had certain beliefs? Can’t I make a different choice?” It took him several tries before he was able to swallow the meat without regurgitating it. In the variation shared in Moshe Feldenkrais: A Life in Movement, he bought a piece of speck (bacon) in Bratislava, first making sure that no one could see him. He made a “mental effort” to eat it and, within a short span of time, vomited it and turned green. In that moment, he said to himself: “Look, Moshe-Pinhas, if you give into the vomiting, you’ll never eat pork or have any more in your life. And all your decisions and cleverness won’t help you.” He returned for a second piece, overcame his revulsion and nausea, and was able to keep it down. It’s a seminal moment for his development and, eventually, for the method he created. He needed to demonstrate to himself that he could choose freely, not just what to eat but his path in life. New patterns can’t be developed without dismantling old ones.
If Jewish dietary laws are followed compulsively in a strict or unloving environment, they can inspire rebellion or rejection. Still, at their highest and best, the constraints can help a person remain conscious, alert and awake about what she’s putting in her mouth, with what other foods, on which dishes and when (typically there’s a six hour wait between eating meat and dairy). Taking that idea beyond the kitchen, we can strive to remain conscious and awake about what we put into our consciousness. Which is why the thought of taking a yoga class makes me want to toss my gluten-free cookies. Perhaps this irritation has been triggered by recent binging, not on bacon, but on YouTube videos by J.P. Sears, whose “Ultra Spiritual” persona skillfully skewers the New Age scene. He spares nothing, including yoga and some of the wackily worded things teachers say, things that I once paid to hear. My head and heart, now accustomed to the straightforward and at times mathematically influenced language of Feldenkrais lessons, do not want to hear namaste or other Sanskrit words anymore. There is no longer a place for them to land in my body, whose desire to assume poses has evaporated since it now moves more lightly and easily than in my downward facing dog days. For those who believe I’m missing the point and wish to remind me that yoga is a sacred path with ancient lineages: I get it. If it were simply exercise, maybe I would have resumed. But having discovered the Feldenkrais Method, which is informed but not circumscribed by the sacred teachings of my own complex tradition and is considered by some to be a spiritual path in its own right, I don’t have a compelling reason to travel along another’s. Nor do I miss schlepping and washing a yoga mat.
Perhaps one day I’ll follow Moshe Feldenkrais’ example and eat a piece of bacon or, rather, a delicate, nearly translucent slice of prosciutto, which has often tempted me when I’ve seen it draped over cantaloupe. The idea wouldn’t be to pig out but to conduct an experiment, to see if mental effort is required to chew and swallow the long forbidden. I’ll need to remember to do so privately or carry a barf bag in case my first attempt, like his, is unsuccessful. Should I turn green, I probably won’t snap a selfie, either.